Gabriel S. Lenz: Voters Focus on Election Year Economic Growth

The article, “Substituting the End for the Whole: Why Voters Respond Primarily to the Election Year Economy” by Andrew Healey and Gabriel S. Lenz appears in the January 2014 issue of the American Journal of Political Science. Gabe Lenz highlights the main points in the following post:

In the US, we-the voters-elect our presidents using a potentially problematic decision rule: we largely decide who will be president based on the election-year economy (1, 2, 3). If the economy is on an upswing before the election, we usually retain the president or his party’s nominee. If it isn’t, we usually elect the challenger. Why is this decision rule problematic? Because it means we pick our president in large part by the toss of a coin. Economists have long known that whether the economy is on the upswing or downswing in any given year-that is, where the economy is in the business cycle-is mostly chance. As a result, this decision rule essentially turns the election of the world’s most powerful leader into a game much like, as Chris Achen and Larry Bartels put it, musical chairs: when the music stops on Election Day, voters decide based on where the economy happens to be in the business cycle.

To understand the ramifications, consider the following thought experiment: What if, instead of hitting in 2008, the financial crisis had hit in 2009, after the presidential election? The subprime bubble had been building since at least 2002, and there’s no reason the music had to stop in 2008. If it had stopped a year later, we may well have elected John McCain rather than Barack Obama. You can conduct a similar thought experiment for many elections. Jimmy Carter experienced a short but severe recession in 1980. If the recession had come a year earlier or a year later, Ronald Reagan may never have become president. If the more severe 1981-82 recession had occurred two years later, Walter Mondale would likely have defeated Reagan in 1984 rather than losing in a landslide.

In “Substituting the End for the Whole,” published in the AJPS this month, we investigate why voters follow this rule. The results are intriguing. Our first key finding, based on a combination of national surveys and experiments, is that voters apparently don’t know they are using this decision rule. When we asked voters how they evaluated the president’s economic performance, to our surprise, they said they focus roughly equally on all four years of a president’s term, only intending to put a little more weight on more recent performance. Put differently, voters care about total growth under the president, not just election-year growth.

If voters intend to focus on total growth under the president, why do they actually judge the president on election-year growth and what can we do about it? Using a series of experiments, we investigate these questions by showing participants graphs of economic conditions in each year of a president’s term (they did not know which president). After looking at the graphs, we asked them to evaluate the economy under the president.

After conducting and analyzing more than two dozen such studies and examining several explanations, we ultimately conclude that the election-year focus arises in large part because of the way the news media and the government report economic statistics. Voters want to judge the president on total growth during the term, but the news media rarely report total growth. Instead, their economic coverage generally reports on recent economic news, especially recent trends in unemployment and income growth. Since voters fail to receive the information they desire-total growth over the president’s term-we find that they substitute recent growth in its place without realizing it. If the president’s term ended with strong growth, voters conclude that it went well overall even if it didn’t. If the president’s term ended with weak growth, they conclude that it went poorly overall even if total growth was actually strong.

Voter behavior appears to reflect a pervasive human tendency to inadvertently substitute an easily available attribute for an unavailable one, a tendency that Daniel Kahneman calls “attribute substitution” (4). Studies by Kahneman and many others have documented this tendency across a wide array of experiences, from undergoing colonoscopies to watching TV ads. For example, adding an additional period of mild pain at the end of the colonoscopy can actually make patients recall that unpleasant experience as having been less painful (5). As with economic voting, people judge these experiences not on the whole, but on how they ended.

This explanation suggests a remedy, a way to align voters’ actions with their intentions. In our experiments, providing voters with the attribute they are seeking-total economic growth under the president-eliminates their election-year emphasis. When we provide respondents with total growth, they easily see that strong growth in the first, second, or third year means that presidents can still preside over strong overall growth even if growth is not as strong in the election year. The implications for government and the news media are straightforward. Report not just yearly income growth, but also total growth over a president’s term. It’s what voters say they want to know to evaluate presidential performance. By making that information easily accessible to voters, the government and the news media could help end our game of musical chairs with our highest office.

William R. Hobbs: The Lonely Nonvoter– Widowhood Effects in Voter Participation

The article, “Widowhood Effects in Voter Participation,” by William R. Hobbs, Nicholas A. Christakis, and James H. Fowler, appears in the January 2014 AJPS. Will Hobbs summarizes the content as follows:

Social scientists conventionally attribute relatively low voter turnout among widows to maladaptation and poor general health. Here, we suggest a new “lonely non-voter” explanation. Widows who become socially-disconnected from their deceased partner are affected by both: 1) the absence of a voting partner (not having anyone), and 2) the absence of a specific, mobilizing partner (not having someone’s influence).

We support this argument by measuring weekly changes in turnout in the year and a half before and after the death of a spouse for three California statewide non-presidential elections. We compare sixty thousand widow(er)s to very similar married individuals with identical voting histories who have not experienced a death to estimate how many widowed people would have voted if their spouse had still been alive. We find that, after turnout rates stabilize at three months into widowhood, around eleven percent of widowed electors who would have voted no longer turn out to vote after the loss of their spouse. This change from married to widowed turnout is quick and indefinite.

A common, reflexive response to this finding is that depression is the driving force, or fundamental cause, behind all of this disengagement. However, we show that the change in turnout is specific to the marriage–individuals who previously voted less than their spouse experience a much larger decline in turnout (close to fifteen percentage points, or twenty percent of the expected turnout) and individuals who previously voted more experience a much smaller decline (five percentage points, or six percent of the expected turnout). Even more, widowed people living with others (at least one additional person, and, here, probably adult children or other young relatives who would be similar to the spouse who died) gradually return to their previous turnout rate, while those living alone do not. If depression and maladaptation are the proximate causes of low turnout among widows, then isolation predicts sustained depression and maladaptation, and the nature of this isolation changes their effects.

We argue that social influence and social support provide an improved, or at least more straightforward, explanation for these changes in turnout behavior and perhaps changes in civic engagement more generally.

Scott Wolford: Weak Threats Outweigh Strong Allies

Scott Wolford‘s article, “Showing Restraint, Signaling Resolve: Coalitions, Cooperation, and Crisis Bargaining,” appears in the January 2014 issue of the AJPS. Here, he provides a summary of its content and major conclusions:

Powerful countries like the United States often find themselves building military coalitions, yet fighting with “friends and allies” isn’t always viewed in a positive light. In fact, it’s generally accepted that coalition partners water down threats and generally make matters more complicated when it comes to powerful countries getting what they want from their enemies. I present a theory that shows this conventional wisdom is often wrong. Even when coalition partners water down threats, demanding limits on the scale of military operations in return for their cooperation, their presence can either raise or lower the chances of war.

Here’s the story: Suppose that a state (let’s call it the leader) would like to convince its opponent that it’s truly willing to fight over an issue, but its opponent has reason to doubt it. Typically, getting the opponent to believe such a threat requires doing something costly, like mobilizing the military. However, sending this kind of signal gets complicated when the leader would also like to ensure the support of a coalition partner, whose military contribution can help it win the war but who will also only stay in the coalition if the war won’t be too costly. In this case, since the costs of war fall differently across members of coalitions, keeping the coalition together entails the leader watering down its own threats.

The result of this desire to secure a partner’s cooperation is that sometimes coalition leaders knowingly send “weak” signals—for example, they will prep a bombing campaign rather than an invasion—that their opponents don’t find credible, which leads to war (typically against weaker opponents). It’s tragic, and if the leader didn’t have the option to build a coalition, war wouldn’t break out. In other words, working with partners can actually make war more likely than it otherwise would be. On the other hand, against stronger opponents, partners can discourage leaders from bluffing about their resolve, which would increase the chances of war; this is surely a good thing when facing strong opponents that would be difficult to defeat in war. Ultimately, my research shows that coalition partners are neither always bad news nor always conducive to peace. Whether coalition-building leads to peace or war depends, in the final accounting, on precisely why coalition leaders make weak or watered down threats.

Ravi Bhavnani: Social Distance is Key to Explaining Conflict over Urban Areas

Ravi Bhavnani provides a summary of his article, “Group Segregation and Urban Violence,” co-authored by Karsten Donnay, Dan Miodownik, Maayan Mor, and Dirk Helbing, and appearing in the January 2014 issue of the AJPS:

Researchers from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID) in Geneva, ETH Zurich, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have developed a computer model to better understand the sources and patterns of violence in urban areas, employing Jerusalem as a demonstration case and seeding their model with micro-level, geo-coded data on settlement patterns for each of the city’s seventy-seven neighborhoods. They focus on social distance—be this religious, ethnic or ideological, class or gender-based—as a key mechanism to explain violence. All else equal, higher levels of social distance increase the likelihood that day-to-day contact between members of nominally rival groups leads to violence.

Using the model, the research team examined the distribution of violence under four proposed scenarios for the future status of Jerusalem: “Business-As-Usual”; “Clinton Parameters”; “Palestinian Proposal”, and “Return to 1967”.  Findings from the study suggest that settlement patterns associated with the “Return to 1967” scenario would most dramatically curb violence in the city, although the team remains agnostic as to whether such a fundamental reconfiguration of the urban space in this city or any other is necessarily desirable, even leaving aside issues of feasibility.  They further stress that reducing violence in the individual scenarios depends critically on the state of intergroup relations—characterized by social distance—and that these relations may change as a result of the political wrangling behind the adoption of a particular policy for the city’s future status.

In contested urban areas like Jerusalem, this research underscores the notion that there are various possibilities for peace, all highly contingent on the nature of group relations. The strength of the approach pursued lies in its ability to compare various alternatives or “futures” in a manner that is amenable to calibration and validation, with real-world plausibility and application.

Peter Loewen: Do Politicians Get Rewarded for Their Legislative Work?

The article, “A Natural Experiment in Proposal Power and Electoral Success,” by Peter J. Loewen, Royce Koop, Jaime Settle, and James H. Fowler, appears in the January 2014 issue of the AJPS. Here, Peter Loewen provides a summary:

Common sense would suggest that politicians should be rewarded for the work they do in a legislature. After all, in the real world we hope that employees get rewarded for doing their jobs. Political scientists are not sure this is the case with politicians, however. After all, voters don’t follow politics closely, especially the finer details of the legislative process. If voters don’t watch their politicians closely, how can they know who to reward and who to punish? There is some evidence to the contrary, however, namely that more active politicians are in fact more richly-rewarded come election time.

Imagine that we did observe all the legislative action politicians took, and we then correlated more action with a greater vote share. This could be evidence of voters rewarding politicians for taking action. But the relationship could also be caused by something else. For example, more talented politicians might be able to take legislative action and earn votes through other means, at the same time. Our paper uses data from a “natural experiment” among the Canadian House of Commons to solve this problem.

In the House of Commons, the right of backbench legislators to introduce legislation is assigned randomly, by means of a lottery. This makes it much like in a laboratory experiment. Because there is no relationship between the right to introduce legislation and a legislator’s ability, we can estimate the independent effect of proposal power (and presumably actual proposals) on electoral success. We find a modest effect – about 3 percentage points in the next election – among members of the governing party. In other words, voters provide some reward for legislative action. Further data analysis suggests that this is because members with the power to propose legislation can use it to cultivate a greater personal vote.

David Samuels: Brazil’s Workers’ Party (PT) is Gaining Ground

The Power of Partisanship in Brazil: Evidence from Survey Experiments,” by David Samuels and Cesar Zucco Jr., appears in the January 2014 issue of the AJPS. David Samuels summarizes the main points of their article as follows: In the US, we know quite a bit about individual voters who declare themselves to be supporters of one of the two main parties. Democrats and Republicans hold strong political beliefs on social and economic issues, and are of course very likely to vote for candidates from “their” party – from president down to local offices. They are also far more likely to engage in other sorts of political activities relative to independents, such as writing to their member of Congress, showing up at a rally, or speaking at a local government hearing. Partisan voters also consume the news in different ways from “independents” – they are more likely to interpret the news through the lens of their pre-existing partisan beliefs. “Partisans” tend to feel like members of a team – they root for their side and deride their opponents. For their part, independents are largely uninterested in this sport. They’re unsure of their views, and are less likely to vote – and when they do show up to the polls, they are more likely to vote without regard to candidates’ party affiliation.

Outside the US, scholars tend to lament the decline of voter partisanship. Some even deny that partisanship has the same meaning outside the US or Western Europe, where countries have a long history of free and fair elections. Brazil just returned to democracy in 1985. Could parties have laid down deep roots in society in such a short time? Brazilian politics is also stereotypically “personalistic,” dominated by individual leaders who make promises that they can bring home the bacon, rather than by parties as political “teams.” Scholars tend to believe that parties have relatively weak roots in society, and expect few Brazilian voters to express partisan preferences. Can partisanship emerge and thrive in such a “party-averse” environment?

We conducted a survey that revealed this conventional wisdom to be wrong – in part – and which suggests that the concept of partisanship can indeed “travel” well beyond the confines of long-established democracies. Most Brazilians resemble US independents – they refuse to acknowledge any strong partisan feelings. However, about 25% of Brazilians now identify with the Workers’ Party (PT), the country’s current governing party. A generation ago, this number was 0%, suggesting that the party has succeeded in cultivating a broad base of partisans where others have failed. Conservatives in Brazil dislike the PT for its socialist past and for its redistributive programs. Liberals feel it isn’t doing enough to help the country’s poor. Our research shows that the party has cultivated a powerful resource that is likely to last over decades. Much like strong feelings for and against the two parties in the US has shaped politics for decades, our findings give observers confidence that the PT – unlike most of Brazil’s flash-in-the-pan personalistic parties – is likely to be a dominant player for decades to come.

Barry Burden: Early Voting is Convenient but Decreases Overall Turnout

Barry Burden highlights the main points of his article, “Election Laws, Mobilization, and Turnout: The Unanticipated Consequences of Election Reform.” This paper, co-authored with David T. Canon, Kenneth R. Mayer, and Donald P. Moynihan, appears in the January 2014 issue of the AJPS.

Over the past 20 years, the percentage of votes cast before Election Day has more than quadrupled. Many voters, policy makers, and advocates support early voting because they believe that the added convenience increases voter turnout. Our article challenges this popular wisdom. We argue that turnout actually declines when early voting is an option.

To understand this counterintuitive relationship, our theory separates the “direct” and “indirect” effects of election laws. Early voting is a convenience that lowers the direct costs of voting, and this alone should increase turnout. But early voting simultaneously raises the “indirect” costs of voting that a traditional election day helps to lessen. This is because activities focused around an old-fashioned election day helped to mobilize many voters by underwriting the costs of participating.

When all election activity is concentrated on a single day, potential voters are given lots of resources for voting. The media cover the election heavily, their coworkers will be wearing “I voted” stickers, friends and neighbors are expected to be at the polls, campaigns will be calling with reminders, and churches will offer free rides to polling places. All of this information and social pressure helps to get out the vote on a traditional election day but is diluted during a lengthy early voting period.

Early voting is a convenience to dedicated voters but it does not solve the problem of getting additional people to cast ballots. It does nothing to help get more people registered; a person who isn’t registered can’t take advantage of early voting. In other words, early voting is a treat for regular voters but not a great way to mobilize new voters.

We show that the availability of early voting on its own in a state actually decreases voter turnout by several percentage points. Using a variety of data and models, we find a consistently negative relationship between a state offering no-excuse voting before Election Day and overall turnout. Even more surprising, in both the 2004 and 2008 elections, turnout was slightly lower for each additional day of early voting that is offered.

There is a way to combat this negative effect. Turnout generally rises when states combine early voting with a form of “one-stop shopping” that allow people to both register and vote at one location. When same day or Election Day registration is offered alongside early voting, it overcomes the negative effect of early voting on its own and may result in a net increase in turnout. Early voting might well have a number of benefits including lower administrative costs but in isolation it is not a prescription for increasing voter participation.

AJPS New Website

Welcome to the new AJPS website.  You probably will not notice many changes.  You can still submit manuscripts and reviews in the same manner as before.  Reports by the Editor are posted as well as all of the reviewers who have contributed to AJPS in the past.  Several new features have been added to the website.  AJPS will now feature a  blog.  That blog may be written by the Editor, by authors or by members of the Midwest Political Science Association.  Comments will be encouraged and also posted.

Blogs by the Editor will aim at communicating changes in the Journal or advice for authors and reviewers.  The Editor will encourage authors to blog about new or forthcoming articles in AJPS.  It is important that the knowledge being generated by political scientists move beyond our narrow academic sphere and into the  public realm.  Authors will be encouraged to translate their findings for the intelligent reader.  This does not mean making overreaching claims.  As always the integrity of the science is foremost.  Comments by readers will be encouraged and moderated by AJPS.

I am excited about working with authors to publicize their research.  Political Science tackles fundamental questions of governance, the exercise of power, the interaction of institutions and behavior and the motives of states, elites and citizens alike.  The depth of our science and findings has lagged far behind punditry and opinion.  Theoretically informed, data based decision making is sadly missing in contemporary politics.  This has been evident in 2013 with the political intrusion in the National Science Foundation and the hobbling of the Political Science Program.

The American Journal of Political Science will remain committed to significant advances in knowledge and understanding of citizenship, governance, and politics, and to the public value of political science research.  AJPS will continue to publish the very best of political science scholarship.


The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.